UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the trial. Photo via uth.edu

Aided by technology, medical sleuths at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are tracking the long-term effects of COVID-19 as part of a national study.

At the heart of the study is an app that allows patients who have shown COVID-19 symptoms and have been tested for COVID-19 to voluntarily share their electronic health records with researchers. The researchers then can monitor long-term symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, depression, and cardiovascular problems.

UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the INSPIRE trial (Innovative Support for Patients with SARS COV-2 Infections Registry). Researchers are recruiting study participants from Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. They want to expand recruitment to urgent care clinics in the Houston area.

Aside from accessing patients' data through the Hugo Health platform, UTHealth researchers will ask participants to fill out brief follow-up surveys every three months over the course of 18 months. The study complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the federal law that protects patients' information from being disclosed without their knowledge.

"This is a very novel and important study," Dr. Ryan Huebinger, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School and co-principal investigator of the study, says in a news release.

In a study like this, researchers typically must see a patient in person or at least reach out to them.

"Using this platform is novel because we don't have to schedule additional appointments or ask questions like 'How long were you hospitalized?' – we can automatically see that in their records and survey submissions," Huebinger says.

Mandy Hill, associate professor in the McGovern Medical School's Department of Emergency Medicine and the study's co-principal investigator, says about one-fourth of the people in the study will be local residents who didn't test positive for COVID-19.

"That group will be our control group to be able to compare things like prevalence and risk factors," Huebinger says.

Eligible participants must be at least 18 years old, must have experienced COVID-19 symptoms, and must have been tested for COVID-19 in the past four weeks.

"This is not going to be the last pandemic. The more information we can gather across communities now will give us a leg up when the next pandemic happens," Hill says, "so that we can be more prepared to take steps toward prevention."

Researchers hope to sign up at least 300 study participants in Houston. The entire INSPIRE trial seeks to enroll 4,800 participants nationwide. The study is supposed to end in November 2022.

"There's such great potential for numerous research findings to come out of this study. We could find out if people in Houston are suffering from post-COVID-19 symptoms differently than other parts of the country, whether minorities are more affected by long-hauler symptoms, and if certain interventions work better than others," Hill says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is financing the study. Aside from UTHealth, academic institutions involved in the research are:

  • University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas
  • Rush University Medical Center in Chicago
  • Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
  • University of Washington in Seattle
  • Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Francisco
UTHealth has created a clinic that will provide a myriad of expert physicians for patients still dealing with COVID-19 symptoms. Photo via Getty Images

New clinic in Houston opens to help patients recovering from COVID-19

post-COVID treatment

Houston's first clinic for treatment of patients still coping with symptoms of COVID-19 has opened at UT Physicians, the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

The clinic, part of the new UTHealth COVID-19 Center of Excellence, is staffed by specialists in cardiology, general medicine, neurology, infectious disease, pulmonology, psychiatry, and otorhinolaryngology (ear, nose, and throat). Telehealth and in-person visits are available.

"The UTHealth COVID-19 Center of Excellence brings together our university's experts in adult and pediatric specialty care, public health, biomedical research, and big data analytics — all working to provide the best outcomes for our patients, the best public health and prevention practices for our community, and the best therapies for the virus' short- and long-term impacts," Dr. Giuseppe Colasurdo, president of UTHealth, says in an October 15 release.

Among other things, the COVID-19 Center of Excellence will work on developing reliable testing for the coronavirus, authenticating effective therapies, applying analytics and artificial intelligence to care and research, and collecting virus samples for a "biobank" to study how genetics affects the virus' severity.

Since the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, scientists and physicians at McGovern Medical School have led clinical trials and treatment protocols, including one of the world's first double-lung transplants for a coronavirus patient. UTHealth is participating in some of the largest national clinical trials to help COVID-19 patients heal, such as studies to prevent progression of the disease and studies seeking proven treatments for critically ill patients.

In one of the country's first randomized clinical trials of its kind, an $8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health is financing a UTHealth study of whether infusions of convalescent plasma can prevent the progression of COVID-19. Another research team is evaluating whether an oral HIF (hypoxia-inducible factor) inhibitor can protect the lungs of COVID-19 patients. The inhibitor is designed to trigger the body's protective response to low oxygen levels.

At the same time, researchers at UTHealth's Cizik School of Nursing are studying the socioeconomic and mental health effects of the virus on Hispanics, while members of the MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences are exploring how the time of day a medication is taken might help a COVID-19 patient. In addition, experts at UTHealth's School of Biomedical Informatics are using big data to fight COVID-19.

"Within our six schools, we have the broad expertise that has positioned us as one of the few universities to help our community, Texas and the country through the pandemic and beyond," says Michael Blackburn, executive vice president and chief academic officer of UTHealth. "That starts with amazing clinical care, COVID-19 trials, real-time translational research, and expert knowledge from our public health leaders."

The School of Public Health is leading establishment of a study to be conducted with partners throughout Southeast Texas to assess the virus' long-term consequences, determine factors that contribute to severe outcomes, and enable UTHealth experts to develop and use treatments more effectively. In addition, a community information exchange will be built to connect vulnerable populations with healthcare and social service providers.

"In these unprecedented times, the six schools at UTHealth are rapidly evolving the science and medical care for patients with COVID-19 and our community," says Dr. Bela Patel, vice dean of healthcare quality at McGovern Medical School. "Prevention, new therapeutics, and post-COVID-19 care for our patients with prolonged COVID-19 disease is the mission for the UTHealth Center of Excellence for COVID-19."

Five cancer research teams have been selected to receive funds from a new initiative from the University of Texas. Photo via news.utexas.edu

UT system funds Houston researchers in new collaboration to cure cancer

collaborate for a cure

In a renewed effort to move the needle on finding a cure for cancer, the University of Texas system has launched a new collaboration in oncological data and computational science across three programs.

Houston-based University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has teamed up with two UT Austin schools — the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences and the Texas Advanced Computing Center. The collaboration was announced this summer to tap into mathematical modeling and advanced computing along with oncology expertise to inspire new methods of cancer treatment.

"Integrating and learning from the massive amount of largely unstructured data in cancer care and research is a formidable challenge," says David Jaffray, Ph.D., chief technology and digital officer at MD Anderson, in a news release. "We need to bring together teams that can place quantitative data in context and inform state-of-the-art computational models of the disease and accelerate progress in our mission to end cancer."

Now, the first five projects to be funded under this new initiative have been announced.

  • Angela Jarrett of the Oden Institute and Maia Rauch of MD Anderson will develop a patient-specific mathematical model for forecasting treatment response and designing optimal therapy strategies for patients with triple-negative breast cancer.
  • Caroline Chung of MD Anderson and David Hormuth of the Oden Institute are using computational models of the underlying biology to fundamentally change how radiotherapy and chemotherapy are personalized to improve survival rates for brain cancer patients.
  • Ken-Pin Hwang of MD Anderson and Jon Tamir of UT Austin's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Oden Institute will use mathematical modeling and massively parallel distributed computing to make prostate MR imaging faster and more accurate to reduce the incidence of unnecessary or inaccurate biopsies.
  • Xiaodong Zhang of MD Anderson and Hang Liu of TACC will advance both the planning and delivery of proton therapy via a platform that combines mathematical algorithms and high-performance computing to further personalize these already highly tailored treatments.
  • Tinsley Oden and Prashant Jha of the Oden Institute and David Fuentes of MD Anderson will integrate a new mechanistic model of tumor growth with an advanced form of MRI to reveal underlying metabolic alterations in tumors and lead to new treatments for patients.

"These five research teams, made up of a cross section of expertise from all three stakeholders, represent the beginning of something truly special," says Jaffray in a release. "Our experts are advancing cancer research and care, and we are committed to working with our colleagues at the Oden Institute and TACC to bring together their computational expertise with our data and insights."

Later this month, the five teams will log on to a virtual retreat along with academic and government thought leaders to further collaborate and intertwine their research and expertise.

"Texas is globally recognized for its excellence in computing and in cancer research. This collaboration forges a new path to international leadership through the combination of its strengths in both," says Karen Willcox, director of the Oden Institute. "We are thrilled that leaders in government, industry and academia see the potential of this unique Texan partnership. We're looking forward to a virtual retreat on October 29 to continue to build upon this realization."

UTHealth School of Public Health launched its Own Every Piece campaign to promote women's health access and education. Photo courtesy of Own Every Piece

This Houston organization is rethinking access to and education on women's health

women's health

If you browse through the required school curriculum in Texas, you might be surprised to find that sex ed doesn't quite make the cut. Sex education is optional in the Lone Star State and state law requires schools to stress abstinence when choosing to teach the subject, which can make understanding birth control even more confusing for both teens and adult women.

UTHealth School of Public Health launched its Own Every Piece campaign as a way to empower women with information on birth control and ensure access to contraceptive care regardless of age, race, relationship status or socioeconomic status. One click to the Own Every Piece website and you'll be greeted by the smiles of diverse women, along with videos of their birth control journey and educational information on various birth control options.

"You feel like the campaign is talking to you as a friend, not talking down to you as an authority or in any type of shaming way," says Kimberly A. Baker, assistant professor at UTHealth School of Public Health. One of her favorite areas of the website is the "Find a Clinic" page, connecting teens and adult women to nearby clinics, because "one of the biggest complaints from women is that they didn't know where to go," says Baker.

The website and social media platforms preach of body-positivity, empowerment, and knowledge. Prompts from a "true or false"-style quiz debunk myths from birth control weight gain to proper condom use on the home page. In the name of inclusivity, women can even upload their own birth control story to share with Own Every Piece's audience.

Baker and her team got their start in school districts developing programs for middle and high schoolers while also training teachers on how to discuss birth control openly. After working in over 20 school districts with the goal of preventing teen pregnancy through education, Baker identified a new problem: the significant lack of access to health care within the Houston community.

"We wanted to figure out what the major gaps were," Baker says. "What we found, of course, was how expensive birth control was — especially with some of the most effective methods."

Kimberly A. Baker is assistant professor at UTHealth School of Public Health. Photo courtesy of Own Every Piece

Let's crunch some numbers. When interpreting the price of contraceptives, the type of birth control and access to health care can impact how much women pay out-of-pocket. According to Baker, the standard pill can cost anywhere from $10 to $30 a month while implanting long-acting reversible contraceptives like the IUD can cost upwards of $600 to $700. These calculations don't factor in the cost of a doctor's appointment, the removal of a device like the IUD, or even the average $4,500 it costs to give birth if you choose to have a child in the U.S.

After noticing gaps in who could pay for service, Baker and her team realized that some community centers didn't have the funds to have long-acting contraceptive on hand.

"We knew if we partnered with health clinics and health centers to help train them to better serve folks that they weren't serving well, and to give them more funds to buy methods that women couldn't probably afford...we would be filling that gap," she says.

Creating comfort and trust among women looking for contraceptives was another key intention in the campaign's launch.

"When [women] enter a community health clinic, they should feel confident to ask questions and to know that they're receiving all the accurate information they should be getting so they can make the best decision for them," says Baker.

Baker likes to think of the Own Every Piece project as a "more celebratory campaign around birth control that we hadn't seen before," she says. "There are so many stereotypes around sexuality and reproduction that are very shame-based," says Baker, particularly for "Latinx and Black women."

She acknowledges how epithetical birth control messaging that suggests women shouldn't "have more kids" or implies "pregnancy is a bad thing" frames reproductive health in a negative way. "We wanted a campaign that let women know that they own their body. They make decisions about their body, and birth control is a piece of that," she says.

The purpose of providing access took on a new meaning when the coronavirus hit. Since Own Every Piece began as a digital campaign targeted to Houston women ages 18 to 30, the initiative had a head start in the race to move online.

"We saw an opportunity to figure out how we can tell our community health centers to get into the telecontraception space because we've already established trust virtually through our campaign," explains Baker.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas held the title of the state with the most uninsured residents in the U.S. In a state with 2.9 million unemployment claims since March, access to affordable birth control has never been more essential for women.

"From women who lost their insurance due to losing their job because of COVID-19, this has been a godsend," says Baker.

Telemedicine has also added convenience for women who didn't have the time to check out a clinic in-person before the pandemic.

While COVID-19's strains on American health care continue to dominate headlines, birth control has also managed to make national news. On July 8, the Supreme Court ruled that employers can opt-out of birth control coverage—a decision that could result in an estimated 126,000 women losing contraceptive coverage from their employers, according to the New York Times.

The 7-to-2 Supreme Court decision is the latest in a seven-year-long litigation over religious objections to birth control. Outside of pregnancy prevention, birth control helps women cope with premenstrual dysmorphic disorder, polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, acne, and a number of other issues.

"We have to work harder to have inclusive messaging around [birth control usage], because birth control isn't just about pregnancy prevention," explains Baker. "People use birth control for a number of needs. When you message it just around pregnancy prevention, people start to feel like something is wrong with being pregnant, and that's not what we set out to do."

Houston-based Mainline is providing the tournament software for an unprecedented esports showdown between the Big 12 schools. Jamie McInall/Pexels

Houston esports company to provide software for a first-of-its-kind collegiate tournament

game on

While college football's fate this fall is up in the air thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the Big 12 Conference is definitely going to face off virtually thanks to esports software developed in Houston.

According to an announcement from the Big 12 Conference and Learfield IMG College, its multimedia rights partner, the tournament has opened for registration for all 10 member schools — Baylor University, Texas Christian University, University of Texas, Texas Tech University, Iowa State University, University of Kansas, Kansas State University, University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, and West Virginia University.

"This is a great opportunity to engage in an emerging space on a Conference-wide level," says Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby in a news release. "This opportunity is a unique way to provide original content from within a competitive environment during these challenging times. We appreciate the collaborative efforts that have made this first-of-its-kind Big 12 Championship tournament possible."

Houston-based Mainline, an esports software startup, has been selected to provide the tournament software for this unprecedented event, which is set to take place July 13 to 16. Each of the 10 schools will host its own single-elimination qualifying tournament featuring Madden NFL 20. Students have until July 10 to register to compete. Big 12 Now on ESPN+ will air both the schools' finals and the Big 12 Conference Championship tournament. The host of Big 12 This Week, Bill Pollock, will call the tournament.

Not only will Mainline's tournament software enable the competition, but it will allow Learfield IMG College to sell sponsors on esports visibility. Just like the football season, the esports tournaments will promote school branding and an opportunity to connect with student participants.

"It's more important now than ever to provide college students the ability to stay connected and engaged, and our technology can help aggregate the college esports community to help make that happen," says Chris Buckner, Mainline's CEO and founder, in the release. "This will multiply the opportunity, power and fun of esports to college students attending all Big 12 universities and keeps students competing while still practicing social distancing."

Earlier this month, Buckner joined InnovationMap's Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the opportunities — as well as the challenges — the pandemic posed for his company.

"Everyone is looking for how to get sports, or esports, in front of people because everyone is just missing [sports] so much," Buckner says on the episode. "Our June will pretty much be the best month of our company, and a lot of that is driven by the fact that everyone is looking for a digital solution rather than an in-person solution."

The most at-risk areas are in poorer industrial parts of Houston. Getty Images

Texas researchers map out parts of Houston most vulnerable to COVID-19

zooming in

A group of researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Houston have created a mapping tool for identifying which parts of the greater Houston area are at the greatest risk from COVID-19.

"The map offers a comparative look at vulnerabilities across Harris County, and could help policy makers determine how to allocate coronavirus tests and health and safety resources," says Amin Kiaghadi, a research associate at UT's Oden Institute for Computational Engineering & Sciences and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Houston, in a news release.

The study, which is posted on MedRxiv, looked into access to health care, pollutant exposure, and medical insurance coverage. Kiaghadi and two UH professors, Hanadi Rifai and Winston Liaw, concluded that the areas most at risk were in the east and northeastern parts of town — especially industrial areas and high-traffic waterways.

The research showed that the highest risk areas were identified as poorer communities, like the area near the Houston Ship Channel. Consequently, populations with lower risk are in the far west areas of Harris County, which tend to be considered nicer areas. According to the release, around 17 percent of the county's population falls into a risk category.

"I'm really interested to see how decision makers look at these maps," Kiaghadi continues. "They can say 'this specific area is vulnerable to many different things—people living there have lower income, they have or they don't have access to the medical care— and that can change the way that they distribute the resources."

Kiaghadi usually focuses on floodwaters spread contamination, and he postulates that his work in this field had an application within the pandemic.

"We believe that if you're exposed to some chemicals for a long time or you were living in an area with bad air quality, that can affect your immune system long term and then make you more vulnerable to a disease like COVID-19," Kiaghadi says. "So we decided to take a new approach here and show that these factors should be considered."

Based on census data, the map is divided up into 786 polygons and looks into 46 different variables in five categories:

  1. People with limited access to hospitals and medical care.
  2. People with underlying medical conditions.
  3. People with exposures to environmental pollutants.
  4. People in areas vulnerable to natural disasters and flooding.
  5. People with specific lifestyle factors, like obesity, drinking and smoking.

According to the release, the researchers formulated the map within just a couple weeks.

"We already had a lot of knowledge and experience working with this sociodemographic data, and population vulnerability to the flaws in the environment and exposure," Kiaghadi says. "So we felt like, this is totally related to our research, so why not explore what it means?"

The map is broken down by 786 census tracts. Graphic via utexas.edu

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Nearly half of Houston workers complain of serious burnout, says new report

working hard

Local workers who're especially dreading that commute or cracking open the laptop in the morning aren't alone. A new study reveals that nearly half of Houston laborers are more burned out on the job.

Some 49 percent of Bayou City residents report to be burned out at work, according to employment industry website Robert Half. That's significantly higher than last year, when only 37 percent reported burnout in a similar poll.

Meanwhile, more than one in four Houston workers (28 percent) say that they will not unplug from work when taking time off this summer.

Not surprisingly, American workers are ready for a vacation. Per a press release, the research also reveals:

  • One in four workers lost or gave up paid time off in 2020
  • One in three plans to take more than three weeks of vacation time this year

Elsewhere in Texas, the burnout is real. In Dallas, 50 percent of workers report serious burnout. More than a quarter — 26 percent — of Dallasites fear they won't disconnect from the office during summer vacation.

In fun-filled Austin, 45 percent of the workforce complain of burnout. Some 32 percent of Austinites feel they can unplug from work during the summer.

Fortunately for us, the most burned-out city in the U.S. isn't in the Lone Star State. That dubious title goes to the poor city of Charlotte, North Carolina, where 55 percent of laborers are truly worn out.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston small biz tech platform raises $21M series B

money moves

A tech company focused on supporting and growing startups and small businesses has reached its own next big growth milestone this week.

Machine learning-enabled small business support company Hello Alice, founded in Houston with a large presence in California, has closed its $21 million series B raise led by Virginia-based QED Investors with participation from new investors including Backstage Capital, Green Book Ventures, Harbert Growth Partners, and How Women Invest.

The raise comes at a pivotal time for the company, which worked hard during the pandemic to support struggling business and now aims to support entrepreneurs of all backgrounds as the world re-emerges out of the COVID-19 era. The fresh funds, according to a press release, will be used to refine the predictive capabilities on its platform, launch a mobile application, and more.

"These investments signal that despite the recent challenges small business owners have faced, there is an economic tidal wave that will revitalize Main Street, led by the entrepreneurs we serve," says Elizabeth Gore, co-founder and president of Hello Alice, in the release.

Since April 2020, Hello Alice has granted over $20 million in emergency funds and resources for small business owners affected by the pandemic. According to the release, the largest percentage of those grants went to "New Majority owners," especially people of color and women. Additionally, the company has reportedly experienced 1,100 percent growth and has expanded to support 500,000 small business owners weekly, with an increased revenue of more than 600 percent through its SaaS platform.

"We are thrilled to have a cap table as diverse as the business owners we serve," says Carolyn Rodz, co-founder and CEO of Hello Alice, in the release. "Our investors are leaders from the Black, Hispanic, LGBTQ+, Women, and US Veteran communities. As a Latina founder and fellow small business owner, I want to ensure that as our company grows, we are fueling future diversity in capital and breaking through ceilings for the benefit of our community."

According to a recent report Hello Alice produced in partnership with GGV Capital, now is the time to support small businesses. The report found that 83 percent of owners surveyed (which included 97,739 founders operating in all 50 states) believe their business will perform better in 2021 than in 2020. Most of the founders — 93 percent — plan to hire this year compared to the almost half — 45 percent — that laid off employees in 2020. Additionally, founders have an increased focus on tech — 75 percent said they are going to spend more on tech this year compared to last.

"Small business owners are the backbone of the U.S. economy, but many fail before they've had an opportunity to meaningfully serve the community in which they're based," says Frank Rotman, QED Investors Founding Partner, in the release. "Access to both capital and business expertise remain the biggest obstacles for SMBs, challenges heightened for women- and minority-owned businesses.

"Traditionally, corporations and government grants want to engage and support, but there hasn't been a source of truth on who can qualify for their diversity grants, funds and programs," he continues. "Hello Alice solves this problem, building tools that empower the new majority and enabling corporations and governments to support SMBs. Founders Carolyn and Elizabeth and the entire Hello Alice team are having a real, tangible impact on the ecosystem. We are incredibly excited to help them help others."

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to two local innovators, as well as one honorary Houstonian, across industries — energy, manufacturing, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Juliana Garaizar, head of Greentown Houston and vice president of Greentown Labs

Juliana Garaizar is transitioning her role at Greentown Houston. Courtesy photo

Juliana Garaizar has a new role within Greentown Labs. She's lead the local team as launch director, and now is taking a new role now that Greentown Houston has opened its doors. Garaizar recently discussed with InnovationMap why now is the perfect time for Greentown to premiere in Houston.

"I think that if Greentown had happened one year before or even one year later, it wouldn't be the right time. I really believe that our main partners are transitioning themselves — Shell, Chevron, and many others are announcing how they are transitioning," she says. "And now they look at Greentown as an execution partner more than anything. Before, it was a nice initiative for them to get involved in. Now, they are really thinking about us much more strategically." Click here to read more.

Misha Govshteyn, CEO of MacroFab

Misha Govshteyn joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the evolving electronics manufacturing industry. Photo courtesy of MacroFab

Electronics manufacturer and MacroFab, run by CEO Misha Govshteyn, much like the rest of the business world, was not immune to the effects of the pandemic. But as some business returned last summer, Govshteyn says MacroFab bounced back in a big way.

"In a lot of ways, the concepts we've been talking about actually crystalized during the pandemic. For a lot of people, it was theoretically that supply chain resiliency is important," Govshteyn says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Single sourcing from a country halfway around the world might not be the best solution. ... When you have all your eggs in one basket, sooner or later you're going to have a break in your supply chain. And we've seen nothing but breaks in supply chains for the last five years." Click here to read more.

Kerri Smith, interim executive director of the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator

A new clean energy accelerator has announced its first cohort. Photo via rice.edu

The Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator, a 12-week program that will prepare startups to grow their business, connect them with strategic partners and mentors, launch pilots, and fundraise, has named its inaugural cohort.

"We were impressed with the quality, potential and range of clean energy solutions being commercialized by our applicant pool and took great care in assessing their potential as well as our ability to meet their identified needs," says Kerri Smith, the accelerator's interim executive director. "The selection process was very competitive. We had a difficult time paring down the applications but are looking forward to working with our first class of 12." Click here to read more.